The Obama administration is pledging $4 billion to put self-driving cars on US streets

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Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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US secretary of transportation Anthony Foxx unveiled a six-month initiative to prepare for an era of self-driving cars, at a press conference at the Detroit auto show today (Jan. 14). He also announced a new $3.9 billion initiative from the Obama administration’s 2016 budget to encourage self-driving car programs over the next decade.

Representatives from Google, GM, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Tesla, Volvo and Delphi—a company making self-driving technology for many automakers—were with Foxx at the conference.

Foxx said that US transportation infrastructure cannot keep up with future population growth, and forecast that 75% of the country will live in one of 11 “megacities” by 2045. “If the government doesn’t change its ways, drivers in the future won’t be moving on our highways, they will be crawling,” he said.

Google has been working on self-driving car technology for years, and its panda-shaped cars are being tested on the streets of Austin and the Bay Area, having already racked up over 1.5 million miles of driving experience. Most major US car manufacturers are also scrambling to acquire AI talent and technology to create their own self-driving cars; Ford CEO Mark Fields said he believes the first consumer self-driving cars will be on the streets within the next four years.

“We are bullish on automated vehicles,” Foxx said at the conference, commenting on the relatively short window of time that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has given itself.

Over the next six months, the DOT will develop a national policy with automakers on how to deal with self-driving cars. According to a release, this policy should establish ”a common understanding of the performance characteristics necessary for fully autonomous vehicles and the testing and analysis methods needed to assess them.” More broadly, the DOT initiative seeks to find a safe way to put self-driving consumer-owned cars on US streets.

In his Jan. 12 State of the Union address, president Barack Obama promised to ”put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st-century transportation system,” Slate’s Will Oremus observed. Setting up a network for self-driving cars might be just what the president means.

Obama’s 2016 budget will be officially announced Feb. 9. While details are thin on how exactly the government plans to allocate $3.9 billion over the next ten years, or what exactly the DOT will be doing in the next six months, the government is clearly trying to get ahead of private-sector research.

Foxx recently requested that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set up a task force to get Americans to register their drones—which it did in just a few months. But the government has yet to work out a framework for integrating drones—especially autonomous delivery drones that Amazon wants to fly—into national airspace, and the government would certainly want a regulatory framework in place for autonomous consumer cars, given how integral cars are to the US economy.

Foxx is now encouraging automakers to come to his office with requests to discuss existing rules. The DOT and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also announced that they will work with automakers to update the policies they first put in place around autonomous vehicles in 2013.